Angst is a German word

Graffiti on the Berlin Wall (Flickr CC by Steve Wilson)

NEWS ANALYSIS: The recent violent events in Cologne seem to bring forth a Germany that is stuck between paralysis and newly inflamed xenophobia. With the media withholding information out of goodwill and mainstream politics slowly admitting the need for a change in thinking, questions arise. What is left of this Germany, caught up between its ‘welcoming culture’ and a jolt to the right, and why does it shy away from a called-for debate? A look into the past, present and future.

During the past year, Germany seemed to have positioned itself as an economic, political and social stronghold, with its European neighbours looking up to it in awe. But after the recent violent attacks in Cologne, everyone seems to be saying “I told you so”, as if this outcome was inevitable.

A big part of the problem seems to be blamed on Merkel’s tactic of always stating “We can do this!” instead of asking “how can we do this?”.

Even now, as Ulrich Schmidt-Denter, professor for development psychology at the university of Cologne claims, some parties are still trying to frame the events as a police malfunction instead of focussing on the whole picture.

A tug of war between downplay and scare tactics

“Now, the debate is quite toxic because events like Cologne are constantly exploited for the sake of one side of the argument”, Armin Nassehi tells According to Nassehi, this is facilitated by all participants denying the need for a constructive discussion. “One side doesn’t want to accept that Germany is an immigration country at all, while the other side neglects the problems immigration can produce.”

The first time in recent history Germany was faced with a nationwide debate about its future identity, it was Thilo Sarrazin, politician for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Bundesbank board member, who started it all. In his book, “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (=Germany abolishes itself), he painted an apocalyptic picture of Germany’s demise through mass immigration of “genetically inferior” Muslims.

He accused the media and political elite of hushing up this important issue in favour of political correctness. Since the book not only contained multiple factual errors but also what was called a delirious, xenophobic worldview, the public debate indeed ignored his grim predictions and focussed more an Sarrazin as a person. This resulted in him having to resign from all his public positions, which put an end to media attention. However, his book became a national bestseller, which was partly caused by the extensive coverage, but also reflected the public interest in the issue of Germany’s identity and future.

A similar debate that stemmed from the political mainstream was focussed on the “Leitkultur” (=leading culture), a term coined by the CSU, the conservative Christian party running Bavaria. It is a concept that has a “Christian system of values” at its core and fears the influence multiculturalism could have on those values. While many criticise its Western claim of superiority, the term is still brought up regularly, especially in the current refugee debate.

While the far-right embraces it, the majority of Germans seem to stand against those concepts of a superior German identity. In fact, a study conducted by psychologist Ulrich Schmidt-Denter, found that Germans are far more self-critical than the European average. “There is a constant sense of guilt combined with a negative self-image in Germans that is partly caused by the intense holocaust education. Not only the media, but also political opponents constantly use it as a weapon, just like it happened during the Greek economic crisis”, explains Schmidt-Denter to Euroscope. “And even inside the country, the Nazi past is used as a knockout argument, deeming every critical voice as ‘fascist’”.


Merkel as Hitler in Greek media (Screenshot of n-tv video)

Indeed, Germany still walks on eggshells when it comes to its historic past. The recent republication of “Mein Kampf” was followed by a panic of a new Nazi revival, with the government withdrawing its support of a scientifically annotated version and shops refusing to even store the book.

“I doubt the book has more than a symbolic value, it is a very bad read and I don’t think many will bother to do so. The fear is unfounded”, claims Hanco Jürgens from the Duitsland Instituute in Amsterdam. According to him, Germany has trouble lightning up. “All of Europe learned to deal with the past through humour, but the Germans don’t seem to be there yet”.

For Jürgens, the movie “Er ist wieder da”, a caricature of Hitler in modern times, proves that. It was highly popular in the Netherlands, while German critics thought it was very problematic. The Spiegel tried to find out what it means to laugh about Hitler, but without a real conclusion they ended up between a sign of the enlightened democrat and a playing down of the past.

In a speech from 2011, the recently deceased Helmudt Schmidt, former German Chancellor, said that it would still be a while until Germany can become a ‘normal country’. “Standing in the path to normality is the enormous and unique burden of our history. We have to accept that”.

Baring the roots

But history can’t be the only reason for what Politico even calls a “German identity crisis”. “There are plenty of internal sources of German angst; it’s not for nothing that “angst” is a German word”, claims author Lord Stephen Green of Hurstpierpoint during a debate about German identity held by the international affairs think tank Chatham House. “Germans worry endlessly about what is happening to them and their politics, that is why they want to integrate themselves so strongly into a European project, they need affirmation”, Green explains.

“The Germans don’t trust themselves”, explains psychologist Schmidt-Denter, in regards to a study about the nation’s biggest fears. While the highest concern is the inflow of refugees, it is promptly followed by the worry about an increase of right-wing radicalism.

“The uncertainty about own behaviour always resonates”, also shown in the politicians’ and media’s constant fear of radicalisation, “but this negative self-image is home-made”, claims Schmidt-Denter. “Looking at the rest of Europe, Germany can take more than it gives itself credit for. We are not even close to having our own Front National [the popular French far-right party]”, he concludes.

While Hanco Jürgens sees right-wing radicalisation as a more violent problem than in Germany’s neighbouring countries, he also says a lot of it is invoked. “It is a political instrumentalisation to say that Germany is heading down a far-right path now, it’s almost like the other countries are waiting for it”, says Jürgens.

Those constant claims are part of the reason why Germany’s “welcoming culture” has become such a big issue, says Josef Janning, co-director of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “It was a form of self-hypnosis: While Germans were eager to finally show that there is more to them than the radicals setting refugee homes on fire would suggest, the whole issue was hyped beyond life-size. It started out with the people simply setting a sign against xenophobia without having to start shouting matches with the right mob on the streets”, explains Janning.

“Of course, as soon as the term ‘welcoming culture’ came up, neither the public nor Merkel objected, it made them look good.” So, as Janning sees it, the gap between the applauding people on Germany’s train stations and the ‘Germany for the Germans’-shouting mob might not be as big as it seems, since both are exaggerated versions and only reflect the extremes.

That might be the reason why the realization that a constructive debate is overdue was so hard to achieve. “Germans liked their role of being ‘the better people’ for once, it was hard to admit that the reality is a more complex one”, concludes Janning.

Time to let go of illusions

The damage has been done, but where does Germany go from here? The Spiegel calls for honesty without illusions. “The Germans are no children that need to be protected from the truth out of goodwill”, a group of editors writes in their newest issue about Cologne, “and it is part of the truth that from now on, living side-by-side might become more uncomfortable in Germany. Politicians need to show that they understand the challenges they are faced with.”

Josef Janning shares a similar notion: “Every form of disillusionment is helping now. We need to step out of this self-enactment and accept the reality, the events in Cologne made anything else impossible.”

“A confident Germany does not have to be afraid. It does not need to demonize anyone. In order for this to happen, we need to redefine our identity – positively, not through exclusion”, Raed Saleh, chairman of the SPD, tells the FAZ.

Honesty and confidence as a way out of the crisis – the coming weeks will tell if this strategy proves to be successful.


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